The Importance of Family-Friendly Transit

As someone who is raising a child without a car in a transit-rich city, I sometimes need to be reminded that for many people in the United States, the reality of maintaining a family life without a personal motor vehicle is impractical — or simply unthinkable, for a variety of reasons. This often holds true even if they live in a city with relatively good transit.

Many car-free families in the Streetsblog Network have posted great
advice for people who want to have kids and take their transit too. Bus
and Car Free with Kids are particularly good resources. And today, network member blog Human Transit is featuring a guest post from EngineerScotty, father to "several" small children who is a frequent user of Portland’s TriMet system. What’s special about EngineerScotty’s piece is that he makes some persuasive arguments about why it’s good for transit agencies to encourage family ridership:

kids_on___bway.jpgIn training for a lifetime of riding transit. (Photo: lauratitian via Flickr)

may dismiss families with children as an unlikely (or undesirable)
transit demographic, and propose that transit agencies instead focus on
those demographics more likely to be transit-compatible, such as
childless families and commuters. However, there are several problems
with doing so.

Families who make  the decision to move to the burbs are more
likely to abandon transit altogether.  A car will be a necessity — and then a
second car will often become attractive.  At that point, even the
morning and evening commute for the family breadwinner(s) may be
instead done by automobile.

Many trips made by families, especially daytime errands with smaller children, are made
during off-peak hours — an important consideration for agencies trying
to load-balance (which is pretty much every agency).

Children who grow up comfortable with transit are more likely to use it
as adults; those who grow up in the suburbs — and whose main exposure to
"transit" is an uncomfortable yellow school bus — are more likely to
an auto-centric lifestyle when they grow up.

Families with
children are an important political constituency as well.  If they have
no stake in good public transit, they are less likely to support it
with their votes or their tax dollars.

Children who are of sufficient age to travel alone, but aren’t old
enough to drive a car, are a natural transit constituency.

Good points all. What are your experiences with kids and transit? Does your local system encourage or discourage families?

More from around the network: A compelling video from Next Stop STL about how how hospital workers in St. Louis need imperiled transit services to get to work. Hard Drive wonders why reporting broken glass in a bike lane doesn’t result in quicker action — this in the bike commuter haven of Portland, Oregon. And I Bike T.O. writes about how bike-sharing programs should be aimed at residents of a city, not tourists.

  • An anecdote about kids and transit: My 7 y/o daughter lives 5 blocks from school on the UES and walks most days. But she has a close friend at school who lives in Stuy Town whose parents own a mini Cooper and drive her every morning to school on the UES. The kid hates the commute because she’s strapped into the back seat with nothing to do. This morning, the friend’s mother relented to what I understand are her daughter’s daily pleadings, and arranged a rendezvous in front of our house to pick up my daughter so they could share the final five blocks of the trip to school together in the car.

    I’ve asked them why they don’t take the bus/subway, but apparently the trip west from the far East Side by Stuy town is so slow that driving is much faster. The same chicken and egg problem of lousy transit pushing folks into cars which undermines the base needed for viable transit.

  • Anon

    One change at MTA that would make things much friendlier for those with small children — on low-floor buses, allowing people to ride without folding up strollers.

    A child who is allowed to stay in a stroller is also one who is not taking up a seat, and who has not just been woken from a nap (i.e. suddenly cranky and loud) so the stroller can be folded. Furthermore, I can attest that a folded-up stroller is much harder to control on a moving vehicle than an unfolded one — especially when you are trying to manage the loose toddler and pay your fare at the same time.

  • I haven’t regularly used transit with kids, but it’s been mixed when I do. It’s great to be able to spend time directly with the kid, focusing on them, instead of driving and having to placate the kid in the back seat (though honestly the kids are usually totally fine with being in the back seat — constant stimulation is not really necessary, and staring out the window isn’t bad). The biggest problem is how very, very slow transit is. A 15 minute trip turns into 45 minutes, and everything becomes more complex. You have to worry about bathroom breaks, snacks, naps, forgetting something on a seat. And if you get stuck on an overcrowded bus or train it’s that much worse, and I haven’t found people especially forthcoming with seats when I’m forced to stand with a kid.

    But probably the biggest problem is that it’s just not feasible to be car-free with kids. Once you aren’t car-free, cars beat transit for most situations: they are faster, cheaper, more reliable, more pleasant. Maybe the *total* cost and frustration of a car is greater than transit, but it’s too late to compare totals, once someone has a car you have to compete on a trip-by-trip basis. Maybe transit is still useful for commuting or getting to certain events, but for most trips even when driving is annoying, transit is just that much more annoying.

    Anyway, for younger children/families: priority seating should also prioritize people with young children, children should always ride free, and… transit should be a whole lot faster and more pleasant. That last item is a doozy 😉

    So… that’s hard. What I think isn’t as hard is getting older children on transit, riding without adults. Then you aren’t competing against cars, because kids and most teenagers can’t drive. Probably the biggest factors there are safety and getting lost. I’m not sure how to handle those problems, but I think there’s a way. Maybe better collective adult supervision and assistance. Maybe that’s a societal problem, though; maybe it’s too hard. But I’d like to live in the world where that is fixed.

  • One consideration that doesn’t seem to get much attention is cost, which plays out differently for families than for individuals.

    For one or two people, it’s probably cheaper to take transit downtown than to drive, and pay for parking, gas, etc. When you’re taking kids along, you may have to multiply that fare by four or five, but the cost of driving and parking stays the same, so the price advantage may disappear.

    In Madison, it used to be possible, on weekends, to take two adults and several children on the bus for the cost of one (or maybe two… I don’t really remember) adult fares. This was a good deal, even compared to the discounted weekend parking fees downtown. But they dropped that deal during a budget crunch, so now it’s cheaper to drive if you’re taking along the family.

  • Bryan Hollaway

    It is a fantastic point that children who ride transit are much more likely to riding transit as an adult. With this is mind, shouldn’t metropolitan transit agencies be providing our children with school bus service rather than the school districts. This would save money for the schools, increase ridership on our transit systems and foster a generation more accustomed to using alternative transportation. New York City has successfully implemented this model. Can more cities?

  • I think the implications of children riding transit are much bigger than just potential future riders. Carting kids around in a car all the time teaches them that they themselves are useless, and unable to get around town, without a special machine. Kids should be taught self-reliance, and the best classroom for that is a train or a bus.

  • Agree, Jeff–but you left off bikes as a way to teach kids self-reliance.

  • Westchesterite

    all good points above. One other item that needs to be highlighted is the class dimension of car vs transit. The suburban county of Westchester, NY has some large cities like Yonkers and White Plains. Yonkers has 25% (I think) of residents WITHOUT a car, most of whom are concentrated in its downtown section. For them, transit is not a choice but an unfortunate circumstance.

    The class dimension is apparent when you compare bus to train stations. Bus stops, frequented by those who cannot afford a car, are usually just a pole along the road. The train stations are much more cushy, with enclosed heated rooms and plenty of benches.

    The irony about Yonkers is that developers trying to attract higher-income residents to new high rises near the train stations are building big multi-story car garages. So even the middle class folks who commute into Manhattan by train wouldn’t think of using the buses to get around Westchester….

  • But probably the biggest problem is that it’s just not feasible to be car-free with kids.

    Ian, says who? You start out with a blanket statement that it’s impossible to raise kids without an automobile, and then you talk about how for automobile owners, driving is more convenient than transit.

    Yes, when I owned a car I found excuses to use it too. But now that I’ve sold my hooptie, I’ve found lots of uses for the nearly $9,000 I’m saving annually.

  • “Agree, Jeff–but you left off bikes as a way to teach kids self-reliance.”

    I left out bikes because the discussion is about families/children and public transit, not transportation in general (and because I am making a concentrated effort not to fit my love of bicycles into every written and spoken conversation that I have–it’s harder than you think!)

  • Jonathan: are you car-free with kids? How do you handle grocery shopping? How do you take multiple children on transit during rush hour? How do you deal with multi-point trips when you have too many constraints to design your destinations around transit accessibility?

    Most cities have huge swaths of underserved areas. Even New York has poor service in large areas of the city. A family introduces a lot of constraints. There is more than one job involved, schools, daycare. It’s hard to choose a home based on accessibility. It’s nearly impossible to choose a job that way, not to mention two jobs. And each decision has more factors than just transit accessibility. Do you look for daycare providers easily accessible by bus, or do you look for providers that are good with kids? Something has to give.

    For most people in most places it is not *feasible* to have children without a car. Not that it’s “impossible”, of course (your word not mine), it’s just not a very good idea. Poor people do get by with kids and no car, but they also *get a car as soon as they can possibly afford it*.

    I want transit to succeed, but I don’t think painting an unrealistically rosy portrait about its current feasibility helps.

  • Jeff, I hear ya. Unlike you, I couldn’t pass the opportunity to promote my pet interest.

    I’ve done a fair amont of child-rearing on mass transit. Ian @3 does a good job of listing the downsides. You basically have to carry around a backpack at all times with materials for handling contingencies like boredom, hunger and thirst, and overcome timidity about the occasional pee in the bushes. It’s sort of like camping.

    We shunned strollers as much as possible, on the view that they promote passivity in kids and they’re a hassle on the subway and bus. Letting little kids walk slows you down and requires tremendous vigilance, but the payback is that the kids grow up to be self-confident urban explorers. When the kids were too tired or cranky to walk, or we were late, often I’d carry them on my shoulders.

    But all of this was while we were living in LIC or the UES, near plenty of buses and trains. I think Ian is right that in most settings, it is very, very difficult to raise kids car-free.

  • What? Most people in most places most certainly do not have a car, with or without children.

  • So this is some sense of “feasible” that doesn’t mean “capable of being done, effected, or accomplished“?

    Ian, you just plain don’t know what you’re talking about. Stop lecturing and start learning. I’m so sick of people talking out their asses about the “feasibility” of taking kids on transit. I’ve already used up my patience commenting on the Human Transit post linked above. I’ll just say the following, and leave it to Jonathan and friends until I’m in a better mood:

    Modal convenience is about infrastructure. There is nothing inherently more convenient about cars than transit. If you build good car infrastructure and shitty transit infrastructure, people will find cars more convenient. If you build good transit infrastructure and shitty car infrastructure, people will find transit more convenient. This is just as true for families as for individuals; the only difference is in the requirements.

    Class is as much about status symbols as it is about convenience.

    I find driving – with kids or without – incredibly inconvenient. Much more so than taking transit. Even in a place designed for cars, but definitely in places like New York that were designed for walking and transit.

  • Jonathan: are you car-free with kids? How do you handle grocery shopping? How do you take multiple children on transit during rush hour? How do you deal with multi-point trips when you have too many constraints to design your destinations around transit accessibility?

    Ian: The solution is called New York City or, more generally, good urbanism. Most grocery shopping in NYC is done without a car. Most trips, multi-point or otherwise, are done without a car. Many (probably most) parents and kids in NYC get around without a car.

    Car-free kid solutions include double-strollers, Zip Cars, subways, cargo bikes, school buses, and fit, healthy young children who are willing and able to walk quite a bit more than their suburban counterparts…

    Certainly, most American parents live in places where they can’t go totally car-free. I assume you live in one of those places. However, most American parents also probably live in places where they could begin to do a few trips a week or month or year without a car if they wanted. That’d be a great start and much less intimidating than the whole “car-free” thing which, I think, really turns off most Americans to the livable streets agenda before the conversation even begins.

  • Feasible ( executable, practicable, viable, workable (capable of being done with means at hand and circumstances as they are)

  • Darin

    As the father of a small boy who rides the train and bus with me occasionally, I can say that traveling with one child is fairly trouble free and he prefers sitting in a bus seat to being strapped in a car seat (can’t blame him). The main problem for me has not been with the specifics of the transit experience but with the location of things along convenient transit lines. Finding an affordable home, daycare and job all near train stations or convenient and speedy bus lines can be a pain. I haven’t succeeded yet, but I hope to and I’ll keep trying.

  • Half of all Americans consider their pets to a be a full-fledged family member . There are about 72 million dogs in the USA but an extreme minority of major transit operators in the USA (and Canada) allow full-size dogs: Calgary Transit, Boston MBTA, Metro North Railway, MUNI (San Francisco), King County Metro (Seattle) and Toronto TTA (Autoshare in Toronto is as far as I know the only carshare operator in N. America which explicitly permits dogs not in a crate).

    It seems to go without saying that hundreds of millions of car trips are made every year in Canada and the USA for the simple reason that in most places dogs of all sizes are simply not allowed on transit.

    In most countries in Europe pet dogs have access to transit (Most Spanish and some French cities are the exception, but they are still allowed on intercity trains.)

    Those N. American dog-accessible services do not have problems with fights, pooping on the seats, allergies and so on, and on both sides of the pond operators and transit staff always have the final say.

    More info here.

  • EngineerScotty

    As the author of the piece, I want to emphasize that the intent is to call for better transit infrastructure, not to make or offer up excuses for parents. I agree wholeheartedly with the good Captain’s comments about the relative merits of car vs transit infrastructure. In most parts of the country, the transit infrastructure leaves much to be desired; having multiple children exacerbates the problem. And so people flee to the suburbs, become auto-dependent, stop using, and stop caring.

    Which is not to say it can’t be done, or it shouldn’t be tried.

    Calls for better service, or complaints that a current level of service is inadequate, should not, in general, be construed as a transit-hostile position–even if such calls contain the observation that current service levels causes some folk to drive instead.

    I haven’t considered much the effect of pets on transit (I own a dog, but he stays home unless being taken to a vet or a kennel–and then he rides in a carrier)–but it brings up an interesting debate as to what behaviors/cargo/etc. should be allowed and what should not. One could extend the jist of the post, after all, to note that most (if not all) transit agencies in the US prohibit smoking on the bus or train (and probably have no choice in the matter)–does this encourage smokers to drive instead? And should it matter?

    The presence of kids (or dogs, or drunks) on the bus is generally a minor inconvenience, assuming the critter in question is behaving well. When kids, dogs, drunks, or even sober adults do misbehave–behavioral standards, rather than blanket bans, are a more effective way of dealing with such issues. Secondhand smoke, on the other hand, is known to have serious health effects simply due to its presence–there’s no way that someone can smoke on the subway without endanering his fellow passengers. Of course, given the sheer number of cigarette butts I see tossed out of car windows, and given that yakking on a cell phone while driving is now illegal in many places–I’m all for banning smoking in automobiles…

  • ddartley

    It’s unfortunate that NYC buses are not designed for easy boarding of occupied strollers. (Buses with low floors have often been included in designs of SBS/BRT systems but I don’t know if that’s the case with NYC’s current plans.)

    And it’s inhumane and stupid NYC bus design necessitates a rule that requires kids to be taken out of strollers and strollers to be folded up. Systems elsewhere around the country and world don’t have that awful impediment.

  • It’s also inhumane and stupid NYC bus design does not include bicycle racks but I digress from the topic…

  • I wonder whether there’s a bus or rail design that would make it easier to access schools. Such a design would have to be more point-to-point and less hub-and-spoke, and would probably prioritize local connections…

  • EngineerScotty

    Are you referring to vehicle design, or to route topology?

    One of the biggest differences between a school bus and a transit bus is that the seating configuration of the former more resembles a motor coach, and is not optimized for simultaneous boarding and disembarking–with only one door (excluding the emergency exits–maybe transit vehicles ought to stage random evacuation drills like school busses do… 🙂 After all, with school busses, the vehicle is either picking up or dropping off at a given stop; seldom both.

    Maybe a better question is whether or not schools can be better laid out for transit–many schools require the bus to pull onto the school premises for service, which is not a problem when the bus is either leaving or coming empty; but is an issue if there are passengers on the bus who are headed elsewhere.

  • No, I’m talking about route topology, as well as school placement. Ideally cities would place their citywide magnet schools in easily accessible areas (i.e. not the North Bronx), neighborhood magnet schools in neighborhood centers, and so on.

    I don’t know how intentional Tel Aviv’s school placement is, but the middle-cum-high school I went to there is located almost right on top of the city’s busiest (and most frequently bombed) bus line; the other middle-cum-high schools in the neighborhood are located close to major bus corridors as well.

  • R. Sullivan

    Great piece! Something that I like about transit and kids is that transit is FUN for little kids. When my kids were growing up in Portland, OR, riding the bus or the lightrail was like getting on a ride at an amusement park, no matter how frequently we rode. Plus, we talked; we spent time together! Then, when they were older and we lived in NY, buses and subways changed their function for us. Buses and subways are still the great reading rooms of the city (for students of all ages, or course). In traveling the city for music and sports and the obvious extra curriculars, such as art, my kids have gotten a lot of homework done, to say the very least. But another great thing about transit is that it offers teenagers freedom. Teenagers are like buses: adults malign them, maybe not thinking about how important they are. (Often, adults don’t want to deal with teenagers at exactly the moment when teenagers want to be dealt with like adults.) I can hear people saying that it is a bad thing to let teenagers off on their own on subways and buses, and obviously when it comes to transit, as is the case for any place that a teenager is going to be, parents have to (and frankly ought to) know where their kids are. Parents operating strollers can find themselves not even imagining their kids will be teenagers, who will want to travel on their own someday, even though their kids will be becoming teenage transit riders with unbelievable high speed train-like velocity. But transit is a positive thing for teenagers, and, generally speaking, what is good for teenagers — accessibility, price control, safety –is good for adults. We have loved living in good transit situations with kids, and last weekend, when our oldest “child” visited us from college, he took a train home.

  • Doug

    I have a child and am car-free. It’s “feasible” depending on where you live. (You know an online discussion has descended very far when people are linking to dictionary definitions to prove a point.)

    Outside of NYC, and even in certain parts of NYC that are more suburban than urban, it’s simply not feasible to make it work without a car. But there are plenty of other places – Boston, Philly, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland where it is possible. Challenging, but possible. Or feasible if you prefer.

    Many grocery stores in New York deliver, which is far more convenient than driving a kid to a strip mall, parking, shopping, and having to load and unload groceries from the car. I take the kid to a nice, local place, load up the cart, go through the register and walk home. An hour later, the groceries show up at my front door. There’s also Fresh Direct, which services many, but not all, New York neighborhoods.

    As for day care, Ian asks, “Do you look for daycare providers easily accessible by bus, or do you look for providers that are good with kids? Something has to give.”

    Ian’s not far off the mark, but that’s not an automatic “win” for car ownership. We had to pick a daycare in a different neighborhood than where we live, necessitating either a subway trip and a walk or two subway transfers. Neither seemed like a great option, but we liked the place a lot. But driving through Brooklyn would not make this drop-off more convenient. If anything, it would take longer given morning and evening traffic and parking. Never mind the fact that we’d still have to get to work in Manhattan, which makes driving and parking impossible. Or not feasible.

    It’s six of one, half a dozen of another. Even in a town where everyone drives, you’d still have to make a similar choice. My friends in the suburbs may be able to drive to their day care drop off, but still had a similar choice: pick a place that’s already on an established commute or pick one that’s good with kids. Having kids means a lot of new inconveniences no matter where you live.

    I would argue that the places in NYC where it is not feasible to have kids without a car are also the places in NYC where it’s not feasible to be car-free period. If you live in most of Manhattan or Brownstone Brooklyn, it’s feasible. If you live in Staten Island or the far reaches of Queens and the Bronx, maybe not. Whether or not you have kids is irrelevant.

  • I am no-car public-transportation-lovin’ mom of an (almost) one year old. Love taking public trans, but wish the stations were more accessible (ramps, not that hard to build!) and that moms could use the buses without folding up the strollers (maybe during non-rush hours).
    I blog about travels (near and far from our Queens home) with baby at this blog

  • AnnArborite

    I live in the college town of Ann Arbor, MI. Population is a little more than 100k. We have a decent hub-and-spoke city bus system, plus the university bus system, and the public school buses. We don’t really have auto congestion (at least by NYC area standards) and there’s good parking. Unless you’re going downtown, total time spent traveling by city bus is about 3x slower than by car. In other words, living car-free with kids is certainly feasible, but even “in-town” families with small kids usually own 1 or 2 cars.

    To me, the biggest impediment to going car-free in Ann Arbor is winter. In particular, the bike lanes become slushy, snowy messes and waiting for a bus can be very cold. Sure, you can bundle up your kids and favor the bus/walking over bikes for those 2-3 months, but it is exhausting, both for the parents and the kids. Again, it is feasible, but being able to dump the kids in the minivan where they are warm and you don’t have to carry all their stuff is just a lot easier.

    This is not to say that living car-free with small kids in Ann Arbor is impossible. However, it is a formidable logistical challenge and takes a lot of energy. Also, I’m not really sure what you could do transit-wise to ease that burden.

  • Ann from Ann Arbor: Density is the New Black.

    IF the town is too spread out then the buses are not economical to run. What size are they? How full do they get? Collective PT requires density to function economically and environmentally. So move every closer to any centers and stack people on top of each other. Or you cannot really complain about lack of PT but then we can complain about you using an unfair share of stuff. Either we complain or you do. Balancing these two things is tough, but we all need to keep trying.

  • My response to Ann Arborite: There are already hundreds of people, if not thousands, living car-free in Ann Arbor. I’m sure plenty of them have small children. If you really wanted to know what would ease that burden transit-wise, you could start by asking them.

  • How transit fares in winter depends only on how much the city cares about keeping it running in winter. Part of it is about modes – light rail does remarkably well, buses less so. Another part is about whether the buses are configured to run more quickly or more slowly.

    This isn’t some alien thing, not even in North America. Calgary has a higher transit mode share than any US city that’s not New York. So do Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa. The cold and snow are problematic in many of those cities, but they make it work much better than Ann Arbor. In the US, Upstate New York has severe winters, and is among the snowiest places in the world, but its cities have among the highest rates of car-free households outside the BosWash megalopolis. Excluding BosWash, the top car-free cities in the US are, in this order, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, Miami, Syracuse, and Rochester.

  • My response to Ann Arborite: There are already hundreds of people, if not thousands, living car-free in Ann Arbor. I’m sure plenty of them have small children. If you really wanted to know what would ease that burden transit-wise, you could start by asking them.


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